René Wellek Laurence Lerner - Essay

Laurence Lerner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Professor Wellek is perhaps the most learned man now writing on literature—he has read, it seems, all European literature (in the original languages) and all the criticism on it—and it is humiliating to read his [Concepts of Criticism]. You may have thought, for instance, that you knew what 'baroque' meant—but you didn't. After you've read his essay 'The Concept of Baroque in Literary Scholarship' you will know about the history of the term (it appears there are two separate etymologies: baroco, a type of syllogism in scholastic logic, as well as the better known suggestion of barroco, an odd-shaped pearl); the sense in which every important critic has used it; and the arguments for and against each definition. Stylistic definitions will not do: if they merely mention the use of conceits they cover too wide a field, and Sydney, Shakespeare, even Montaigne become baroque writers; but if they limit the concept to certain kinds of 'metaphysical' conceit they become too narrow, and Marino ceases to be baroque. Ideological definitions will not do either, since they have to be so general that they lead us away from the baroque poets and even from the seventeenth century. Professor Wellek argues for a concept that will correlate the two, and though he is forced to recognise two forms of baroque (the intimate and the public), he insists that the term is worth preserving against these nominalists who are sceptical of period terms in literary history.

When we have got over our first awe, we demand that the scholar, descending from his mountain tops, bring us back something that was worth the climb. Does Professor Wellek? There is nothing else as good as the baroque article: two similar and equally learned pieces treat the concepts of 'romantic' and 'realist' (he is a great believer in period terms), but though they survey the ground as thoroughly, they are disappointing when they begin to sort out the clashing meanings. Professor Wellek's mind, we realise, is lucid and well-stocked, but not very exciting; he does not grab hold of ideas direct. As for the rest of the essays, most of them are simply surveys of modern criticism and critical terms, that read like encyclopaedia articles.

Laurence Lerner, "The Critical Heights," in The Spectator (© 1963 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), No. 7068, December 13, 1963, p. 799.∗